HL Deb 17 October 1972 vol 335 cc1674-7

2.52 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the second Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will report on the operational serviceability of the Hawker Siddeley vertical take-off Harrier aircraft.


My Lords, I am confident that the Harrier will have a long and successful career as a front-line aircraft. The versatility of its design offers great flexibility in deployment and operational use, and we have found, in the three years since it was introduced to service, that it measures up well to the demanding conditions we require of it in the field. As is usual during the early years of a new aircraft, we have introduced, and are still introducing, refinements and improvements. I have no doubt that these will complete its progress towards providing the Royal Air Force, and NATO, with an aircraft of outstanding value, well up to the performance we expected of it.


My Lords, while thanking my noble friend for that reply, may I ask him whether help was offered by his Ministry to the Insight team before they published a very slanted report in the Sunday Times recently? And will the Minister confirm that the flight safety organisation, which was also highly criticised in that article, is both efficient and strong, and enjoys a high measure of priority in his Ministry?


My Lords, yes, my Department did offer facilities to the Insight team and one member of the team attended a briefing in the Ministry of Defence. I must say that the article does not reflect to any great extent the briefing given, and contains a number of inaccuracies.


My Lords, while appreciating very much what the noble Lord has said, may I ask whether he can go some way towards destroying the effect of this highly slanted article? I realise that he does not wish to answer every canard in the Press, but would be agree that this aircraft is a very remarkable achievement of British technology? Does he agree also that we regret the tendency of the newspapers to pour obloquy on any really successful achievement rather than to praise it?


My Lords, that comes as well from the noble Lord as it comes from me. I endorse what he says, and I welcome the opportunity which my noble friend Lord Orr-Ewing has given me to make it clear that this is an excellent aircraft and that a great many of the statements in that article were wholly inaccurate. While I am on my feet, perhaps I might answer the second part of the question my noble friend asked me about the Directorate of Flight Safety. This is a highly professional and internationally respected body, and I may say that I know from personal experience how much interest the Air Force Board takes in the safety of crews and the safety of aircraft. I personally regret very much that this article was written.


My Lords, can the noble Lord tell us whether the sales of this aircraft abroad are still continuing or whether they are being held back as a result of the sort of article that has been published?


My Lords, as the noble Lord knows, I believe, the United States Marine Corps has bought some of these aircraft and there have been some inquiries from other countries. I do not believe myself that that sort of article will in any way endanger the prospects for sale of this aircraft which is really a very fine aircraft indeed.


My Lords, would the noble Lord not agree that one of the ways of eliminating this sort of unfortunate article is to publish, as a matter of course, more information concerning incidents or accidents to Service aircraft? Could he therefore not reconsider his policy in respect of these publications, because it is very important, particularly in respect of transport aircraft?


My Lords, I do not know that I would go all the way with my noble friend on that point. There are reasons why one does not go into too much detail. For example, what is an accident and what damage has to be sustained before it should be reported as an accident? I think the noble Lord opposite would agree with me that we always give figures about accidents to aircraft which have been written off, but one can go too far in the other direction I might just say that the accidents the Harrier has suffered are in no way abnormal for the first three years after the introduction of a new aircraft into the Royal Air Force.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, if he has ever known of any aircraft produced in this country, whether military or civilian, that has failed to have teething troubles? And is it not a mistake, when we do produce something valuable, to begin to cry "Stinking fish!"?


My Lords, not for the first time, or I hope the last time, I entirely agree with the noble Lord.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware that this Question appears to have achieved its object? Many of us feel that it is deplorable that a small minority of irresponsible young journalists should knock every British invention, British development and every British product and thus give great aid to our competitors round the world and greatly harm our own industry.

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